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September 21, 2007
One of the myths that the World Twenty20 has dispelled is that there is no time for a team to recover from a poor start. India sent South Africa tumbling out despite being 33 for 3 against the new ball and England left the tournament early even though they reduced South Africa to 94 for 6 and New Zealand to 31 for 4 during the Super Eights.
Pakistan's top-order woes have perhaps been the most severe and consistent - twice they have been four down for less than 50 - yet they are in the semi-finals. Early wickets have not always meant a decisive advantage and momentum has changed in the blink of an eye.
Given 20 overs to face, the expectation had been that the best place to bat would have been in the top three. The tournament's leading run-scorer being an opener, Matthew Hayden, suggests this holds true but he helped himself to two unbeaten half-centuries against England and Sri Lanka when the opposition have long-since been beaten. Kevin Pietersen, still the second-highest scorer, only belatedly moved up to No. 3 in England's line-up and made his highest score batting at four.
The real match-winners have come from numbers four, five and even six. New Zealand's leading run-maker is Craig McMillan, heading into the semi-final with 151 at a strike-rate of 179, while Pakistan's top two - Shoaib Malik and Misbah-ul-Haq - have made 310 runs between them and against Australia added 119 to seal victory.
At Cape Town and Durban the conditions have played a significant part in the early struggles with the ball nipping around so the timing of the first semi-final at Newlands - a 1pm start - is the ideal situation to try and level the playing field. "The wickets perhaps haven't been quite as conducive to Twenty20 as you'd like sometimes," said Daniel Vettori. "They have been a bit fresh and the 10am starts and games under lights and contributed to that."
In a 50-over match if a side loses its top order cheaply, for example 40 for 4, eight times out of ten they won't recover. But in Twenty20 cricket teams have turned games around in the space of a few overs. Unlike one-day internationals, when early wickets have fallen in this tournament the pressure hasn't been maintained. Against Australia, Malik and Misbah exploited the overs from Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke, while New Zealand's fightback against England was largely down to 73 off seven overs between Dimitri Mascarenhas and Paul Collingwood.
"I think it's probably one of the big things, that guys do have time to build an innings," said Vettori. "It's the sort of mantra we have been trying to preach, that guys have got time to get themselves in, and then they can hit during the end. You can make up so much time with a few really big overs and that's really what Craig McMillan has done throughout the tournament. He has got us out of [tough] situations because he has built an innings."
With the game changing so quickly, captains have had to come up with new ways to try and keep control. One tactic employed has been to use the full allotment of a strike-bowler's overs in the second half of the innings when a recovery can take shape. Lasith Malinga was held by back by Mahela Jayawardene, while Umar Gul has performed a similar role for Pakistan. It has meant that whereas most teams have had a weak link in their attack, Pakistan's contains wicket-takers throughout the 20 overs.
Gul's match-up with the New Zealand middle order will be a key confrontation at Newlands. His yorkers have been on target bringing him seven wickets at 16, plus an economy rate of 5.69. For New Zealand, Vettori will perform a similar role although Pakistan's middle order - Misbah, Malik and Younis Khan - will provide one of his toughest challenges.
For a side to have the belief that they can drag themselves out of a hole is a huge advantage going into the pressurised environment of a semi-final. But the top orders of both Pakistan and New Zealand owe their colleagues something for keeping them in the tournament. This is the time to perform.